Yes, the Duke seems a bit off in ''Brannigan,'' his ''Dirty Harry'' wannabe -- but somehow it works, says Chris Nashawaty

By Chris Nashawaty
June 06, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Brannigan: Kobal Collection

Adventures in miscasting: John Wayne in ”Brannigan”

It’s easy to rail on the Hollywood studios for everything they do wrong. But every once in a while it’s worth taking a look at a few things they got right. One of the more famous examples is the decision to cast Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca instead of first choice Ronald Reagan. I mean, would Ingrid Bergman have spent more than a second thinking about leaving Victor Laszlo for the Gipper? Hell no.

There are a million examples where Hollywood sobered up in the nick of time to prevent similar disasters. Here’s just a few:

— Chris O’Donnell and Claire Danes in Titanic. Moviegoers would’ve been rooting for the iceberg.

— Cher and Melanie Griffith in Thelma & Louise. Imagine the plastic-surgery budget alone.

— Molly Ringwald in Pretty Woman. This could have worked only if they cast Jake Ryan in Richard Gere’s part and Long Duk Dong as the hotel manager.

— Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. A mustache and a bullwhip? Come on. That’s one pair of buttless chaps away from being a Playgirl cover.

My personal favorite, though, is thinking about John Wayne as Dirty Harry — the all-time greatest cop flick ever. Period. Can you imagine the Duke looking down the barrel of a .44 Magnum, saying, ”Do ya feel lucky, punk?” Well, actually I kinda can. But I’m still glad he didn’t. Wayne, on the other hand, must have regretted the decision. Because a year after Dirty Harry made a Eastwood a bona fide box office star, Wayne put together his own Dirty Harry knock-off: 1975’s Brannigan.

Now, Brannigan is a flick I like to throw on once a year whether I’m in the mood or not. Kind of like going for a physical or cleaning behind the couch. Wayne plays Lt. Jim Brannigan, a fiery Irish-American cop from the Windy City who brings his brusque, bull-in-a-china-shop American methods to London when a fugitive he’s after hightails it across the pond. The fugitive is played by the late character actor John Vernon (best remembered as Animal House‘s Dean ”Double Secret Probation” Wormer). Why does Vernon flee to London? Well, as he says, ”I like this town! I like the women, the clubs, the action!” And what does he think of our man Brannigan? ”I told you I wanted that big Irish bastard wasted!” God, how I miss John Vernon.

Anyway, Brannigan flies to London (hitting on the stewardess on the way, natch) and hooks up with a fuddy-duddy British inspector (played by Richard Attenborough, with an eye-catching set of muttonchop sideburns), and the two clash cultures and make silly limey-vs.-yank jokes. This is one of those fish-out-of-water movies where the American character has a hard time understanding words like lift, loo, and lorry, and the filmmakers think it’s hilarious!

Brannigan was one of Wayne’s last films, and he’s pretty much coasting. First off, he looks like a side of roast beef. And his shameless flirting with Scotland Yard’s Judy Geeson — a sassy British bird who looks like Florence Henderson circa season 4 of The Brady Bunch — is painful. And yet…

And yet, I love this movie. There’s something about watching a legend like Wayne in his golden years trying to be with the times. There’s a look on his face of pure confusion. Like he’s thinking to himself, ”Don’t I deserve better than this?” And still, with everything working against him, the Duke manages to be an old-school badass and stick it to those fancypants Brits. Like when he beats up a Cockney bookie, then threatens him thusly: ”Now, would you like to try for England’s free dental care or are you going to answer my questions?”

That’s good stuff. And so’s the rest of Brannigan. Check it out.